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Australian women destined for frontline combat

by Staff Writers
Sydney (AFP) April 12, 2011
Australian women could soon be given the right to fight and die for their country by serving in frontline combat positions, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said Tuesday.

While women are allowed to fill many military roles, they are currently excluded from the most dangerous and demanding, including in the special forces and rifle companies.

Smith said this could change after the defence force announced a series of reviews into the treatment of women sparked by a sex scandal involving a young female cadet at Australia's elite military academy.

"It's very realistic (that women will serve on the front-line)," Smith told reporters, saying positions should be determined on physical and mental capacity, not sex, in a bid to change the male-dominated military culture.

"What you do in the forces should be determined by your physical and intellectual capability or capacity, not simply on the basis of sex or gender.

"It opens up all of the leadership roles for women in defence -- and that's an unambiguously good thing."

Currently, a woman cannot be appointed chief of defence as the role is only open to people who have served in combat.

Several countries, including New Zealand and Canada, already allow women in some front-line positions and Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, made clear no job should be denied on the basis of gender.

"A few years ago I heard (former defence chief General) Peter Cosgrove say that men and women should have an equal right to fight and die for their country," she said.

"I think he's right about that and I think it's a good turn of phrase. It puts the choice very starkly."

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who has been tasked with reviewing how women are treated in the forces, said women fighting alongside men would be "very symbolic".

"It will send a strong message that men and women will have equality in terms of opportunity for jobs," she said.

But not everyone wants to see women putting their lives on the line, with the Australia Defence Association think-tank saying it was not realistic.

"The nature of war doesn't change just because some feminists kick up a fuss," spokesman Neil James told ABC radio.

"Simple commonsense tells you that if you put women in some jobs where you directly fight men, enemy men, one-on-one in a physical confrontation for a continuous period, then we are likely to suffer more female casualties than male casualties."

A number of investigations into the military have been launched after a male student filmed himself having sex with a female colleague at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and allegedly secretly broadcast it to his friends online.

The woman went to the media last week, triggering a series of fresh complaints about sexual misconduct within the military stretching back decades.

According to the Sydney Daily Telegraph Tuesday, at least four military officers who allegedly raped and assaulted fellow students at the ADFA remain in uniform.

Smith said his office and the Department of Defence had received numerous new complaints since the video sex incident.

"There have been suggestions, allegations, complaints made of incidents of abuses in the past or failure to properly handle allegations or suggestions of abuse, vilification, bullying or intimidation," he said.

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